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No Place like Holmes',
By A Customer
This review is from: Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer (Paperback)
There's nothing new under the sun. Or at least, very little, particularly this late in human history. Could the Victorians have imagined our world-spanning communications network carrying information at the speed of light in pulses of electricity, for example? Yes, very easily, because they had a network like that too: it was called the telegraph.
And could the Victorians have imagined our salacious, dishonest media concentrating sex and horror in an ever-quickening race to stimulate the public's jaded appetite? Yes, because they had that kind of media too, all the way from sensationalist newspapers to quickie paperbacks brought out to cash in on a currently notorious trial.
Like the trial described in this book, that of Herman Webster Mudgett, alias Henry Howard Holmes, a Chicago doctor, chemist, and fraudster whom this book describes as America's first serial killer. First *known* serial killer, maybe, but disputes over his claim to priority aside, Holmes is certainly one of the most interesting entries in an ever-growing list, and this book, rarely in the true-crime genre, doesn't let an interesting subject go to waste. Brought down by a life-insurance scam that went wrong, Holmes became the center of world-wide attention when the true nature of his giant, jerry-built boarding-house in Chicago was uncovered by police searches. It had been a kind of killing factory, with concealed gas-pipes, peep-holes, trap-doors, and chutes guaranteeing Holmes a steady supply of victims for a sinister cellar complete with dissecting-table, surgical instruments, and furnace.
Or so the eager newspapers and publishers gave the world to believe, and although Holmes may not have been quite so energetic in his pursuit of nubile young female victims as their reports claimed, the house was certainly fitted out in the manner they described and young women had certainly disappeared after booking in there. Precisely what Holmes did with them before he killed them, and with older victims of both sexes, is still unknown, but he seems to have had a sexual motive beside the obvious mercenary one. Working with Holmes to profit from these victims and their jewellery and cash was a petty criminal called Pietzel, who eventually fell prey to Holmes in the life-insurance scam that brought Holmes down. Rather than go to the trouble of finding a substitute corpse after Pietzel's life had been insured, Holmes killed his confederate and then set about disposing of Pietzel's large family.
Schechter concentrates on this final period of Holmes' murderous career, as the suave, merciless fraudster tricks Pietzel's wife and children into travelling all over the United States (and Canada) in quest of a husband and father he has assured them is still alive. He separates some of the children from their mother and kills them, scheming to murder their mother and remaining siblings with a vial of nitroglycerine a little later. Meanwhile, however, the insurance company is catching up with him and detectives are slowly disentangling the threads of the tangled web he has been weaving all his adult life. It's a fascinating and sometimes moving story well-told and ending as the Victorians loved their morality tales to end: with the villain paying the price for his crimes at the end of a rope.
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